Iran's decision to resume nuclear enrichment activities—a key step in the process of making nuclear weapons—is a direct challenge to the United States, Europe and the rest of the world. For more than two years now, Europe—with Washington's support—has offered Tehran a reasonable deal: End the nuclear enrichment work it had been doing in secret for nearly two decades and receive technical support for a civilian nuclear energy program as well as expanded economic and diplomatic ties.
Last week, the new Iranian government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad basically told the international community to get lost. It resumed research and development activities that had been suspended during the talks with the Europeans, still claiming that its nuclear program was entirely peaceful. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel made clear on her visit to Washington this month, even those most committed to a diplomatic solution with Iran now accept that diplomacy has run its course, and the time for decision and action has arrived.
But what decision, and what action? In the debate about how to respond to Iran, two opposing camps have emerged: One wants to give in to Iran; the other wants to bomb it. Both are wrong.
In the first camp are those—mostly in Europe, but also in many other parts of the world—who accept Tehran's argument that it has a right to develop nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. And while they would oppose an Iranian bomb, they argue that there is little we can do to prevent a determined Iran from building one eventually and that, in any case, a nuclear-armed Iran can be contained. It would be difficult to get international support for economic sanctions, they say, and even if Russia and China were somehow to agree to them, sanctions would fail to change policy—as in Iraq, North Korea and Cuba.
This view is entirely too complacent. It's a delusion to believe that Iran's program is for civilian purposes only and that allowing Iran to master nuclear enrichment is therefore no big deal. Given Iran's long track record of hiding and lying about important aspects of its nuclear program, allowing it to develop enrichment and reprocessing capabilities—even under an international inspection regime—would remove the most important technical barrier to its acquiring nuclear weapons and leave the decision of going nuclear entirely in the hands of Ahmadinejad's radical Islamist government. That is an unacceptable risk.
The dangers of an Iranian bomb are clear. Others—Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey—could follow suit, both in order to deter Tehran and in the well-warranted belief that a world that allowed Iran to build a bomb would surely allow them to do so as well. This would be a fatal blow to the already shaky nuclear nonproliferation regime, which for nearly 40 years has helped convince countries as diverse as Sweden, South Korea, Brazil and Ukraine that the costs of acquiring nuclear weapons far outweigh the benefits. Moreover, a nuclear-armed Iran would represent a major threat to regional and global security. It could deter the United States and others from responding to Iranian aggression or to Tehran's support for terrorism in the Middle East and beyond. And given the messianic streak of Tehran's current leaders, do we really want to run the risk of them passing nuclear materials or even a weapon on to al Qaeda?
On the other side of the debate are those—mostly in the United States—who think that the time has come to use military force against Iran. Because diplomacy has failed and we are, as President Bush has said, "all sanctioned-out" as far as Iran is concerned, the only option left is a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities before it is too late. If ever there were a case, they argue, for making good Bush's vow—that America will "not allow the world's most dangerous regimes to possess . . . the world's most dangerous weapons"—this is it.
This view, too, is wrong. U.S. air strikes probably could destroy Iran's critical nuclear facilities—at least those we know about. But our intelligence is hardly perfect, so we would not really know if Tehran's nuclear program was in fact destroyed. A military attack against Iran would also undoubtedly generate strong public support among Iranians for an otherwise unpopular regime. Any lingering doubt that they needed a nuclear deterrent would be erased.
And are we prepared for what Iran could do in return? Through its Shiite partners in Iraq and Afghanistan, it could wreak havoc on our forces and undermine our efforts to stabilize both countries. It could threaten oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz, through which more than one-third of the world's oil flows, and urge its terrorist friends to launch retaliatory strikes against our allies and us.
The option of relying on Israel to strike Iranian targets—as alluded to last year by Vice President Cheney—would be even worse. The Israelis would conduct the operation less effectively because of their more limited military means (striking targets in eastern Iran would be a stretch for Israel's limited-range F-15s), and the United States would bear the responsibility anyway, not least if it allowed the Israelis to fly over U.S.-controlled airspace in Iraq.
Given these bad options, what should the United States and Europe do instead? The answer is that they should do what they said they would do—make Iran pay a real price if it refuses to suspend its uranium enrichment activities again. This means first making a concerted effort to win Russian and Chinese support for tough action at the International Atomic Energy Agency and the U.N. Security Council next month. Ideally, the Security Council should not only denounce Iran's actions but agree on an oil embargo and a ban on investment in Iran.
The credibility of sanctions would be enhanced if it were clear that negotiations could resume—and punitive actions be suspended—as soon as Tehran terminates the enrichment activities it recently resumed. The offer to support a civilian nuclear energy program, increase trade and investment—and even engage in regional security talks and restore diplomatic relations with the United States—would also remain on the table.
But if Tehran refuses to back down, it must pay a price. And while Russia and China may not go along, Europe, Japan and the United States should not hide behind their refusal. The argument that sanctions won't work without China, Russia and India on board is overstated. Only Western companies at present possess the sort of expertise and technology that Iran's energy sector needs, and in an integrated world oil market, whatever oil China and India purchase from Iran liberates supplies elsewhere. Iran could, of course, retaliate by pulling its oil off the world market, which would cause a price spike. But if Americans and Europeans are unwilling to run the risk of a temporary rise in oil prices as part of what it takes to prevent an Iranian bomb, then they had better be prepared to live with the consequences as well.
The Iranian government believes, as Ahmadinejad put it recently, that "you [the West] need us more than we need you." Do we really want to encourage him in this belief?
There is no guarantee that making the threat of sanctions more credible or actually imposing them will have an immediate and positive effect, but given the alternatives it certainly makes sense to find out. And even if sanctions don't work in the short term, they would still be useful to give future Iranian leaders an incentive to cooperate and to send a message to other potential proliferators. At the very least, serious sanctions would slow the nuclear program by squeezing the Iranian economy and cutting off key technologies, would further strain the already disgruntled middle classes who might one day push the current regime aside, and would serve as leverage in the future if Iran ever does decide to engage the West.
Iran must be presented with a clear choice: It can become an impoverished, isolated pariah state with nuclear weapons—like North Korea—or it can begin to reintegrate with the international community, meet the needs of its people and preserve its security in exchange for forgoing this capability. The choice will be for the Iranians to make. But we must force them to make it.